A hot mess does not make for a great debate. Or an interesting one or even an entertaining one.
America was mistreated Tuesday. A highly anticipated showdown in a closely fought presidential election in a deeply divided country had the potential to be a clarifying moment.
Instead, it was a sweaty, formless flop. Worse, it was annoying. Neither the candidates or moderator Chris Wallace acquitted themselves well.
Joe Biden was sharp and coherent enough, though he relied heavily on notes in front of him. He didn’t exactly raise the bar of decorum with his name-calling, alternately labeling President Trump a clown, a liar and a racist. Ho hum.
Yet the bulk of the blame falls on Trump, who came with a clear plan and executed it flawlessly. Unfortunately, it was a very bad plan.
From the git-go, the president was determined to rattle Joe Biden by being a persistent interrupter, rarely letting the former vice president finish two consecutive sentences. On occasion, his interjections were smart, but mostly, they made him look boorish.
There’s nothing worse than three people talking over each other on television. You can’t really hear anyone and it’s frustrating to try.
Wallace repeatedly scolded Trump, reminding him that his campaign had agreed to the rules. Not good moments for a president whose personality is a drag on his policies for many of the voters he will need to win over if he’s to get a second term.
Frankly, I was surprised at Trump’s approach. It was an example of all tactics and no strategy. He interrupted even when Biden was stumbling, which had the effect of letting Biden off the hook and out of the rhetorical weeds.
Still, the plan worked on occasion, most effectively involving Hunter Biden. Joe Biden was trying to make an emphatic point about his late son, Beau, serving in the military when Trump jumped in to demand he explain how Hunter made millions from businesses in China, Ukraine and Russia once his father became vice president.
It’s a legitimate line of inquiry and all Joe could do was say it’s not true. But it is true. We know it. The records are public.
The only thing we don’t know is what Joe Biden knew and whether he approved. He once said he never discussed with Hunter his son’s business, and we know that’s not true.
Wallace, unfortunately, did not press the issue. The structure of the debate was off in that there was no built-in time for each man to respond to the other’s answer and attacks. That feature has become so routine at debates and its absence robbed viewers of key comparisons.
Overall, Wallace asked generally good questions but was too reticent to ask probing follow-ups. He was especially weak at getting Biden to talk about topics he has ducked during the campaign.
For example, Wallace asked him about whether he supported the move by fellow Dems to expand the Supreme Court. Biden, repeating an answer he has given before, said he wasn’t going to answer, then rambled on, with Trump insisting he should, yet Wallace let Biden get away with it.
Oddly, Biden, after saying the vacancy on the court should not be filled until after the election, stumbled when referring to Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett. “I’m not opposed to the justice, she seems like a very fine person,” Biden said, which had to make Democrats cringe as they prepare a scorched-earth attack against her.
And on the Green New Deal, Biden took both sides of the issue. In response to a question and Trump’s badgering, he insisted, “That’s not my plan.” But a minute later, he defended it, saying it “will pay for itself over time.”
Then, when Trump pointed out the inconsistency, Biden again said he wasn’t for it. Shades of John Kerry there, who once infamously said he was for an Iraq war spending bill before he was against it.
Those are hot buttons for the progressives Biden has had trouble corralling, and none who were watching could come away thinking he was on their side.
Still, coming into the debate, Biden had significant leads in all national polls and more narrow leads in most swing-state polls. My guess is that, if the debate moves the needle at all, it will give Biden a modest bounce.
Then again, most voters say they’ve made up their minds and there are so many important issues coming and going so rapidly that it’s been hard for anything to break through and change the dynamic.
The last few days tell the tale. A frenetic exchange of attacks and counterattacks all designed to either hijack the debate or at least influence it continued almost until the candidate introductions.
Barack Obama, in an ad for Biden targeting black voters, declared that “from the White House on down, folks are working to keep people from voting, especially communities of color.”
Remember the good old days, when there were hopes Obama’s election was going to heal race relations? In reality, he made them worse, and false, incendiary charges like that one show he’s not finished.
Before that came yet another New York Times alleged “bombshell” on Trump’s taxes, a piece that seemed neatly coordinated with Biden because his campaign was up with an ad on it in hours. And then Biden released his taxes just hours before the debate.
If it were honest, the Times would register as a Biden super PAC.
But the last word in pre- debate scrimmage came from the White House, with Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe releasing a statement late Tuesday charging that the FBI, among others, knew in the summer of 2016, Hillary Clinton was going to create the Russia, Russia, Russia collusion theory. The FBI also reportedly knew that Russia knew this, and told all of it to Obama.
So when the ex-president says “democracy” is at stake this year, what he really means is that he, Biden and all Democrats are screwed if Trump gets four more years — and can completely uncover and release the proof showing all the ways they abused their power to try to steal the 2016 election for Clinton and then sabotage Trump’s presidency.
But to get that second term, Trump will need to have a better plan than he had Tuesday.